When I used to drive home from Academic Magnet High School in North Charleston to Johns Island, I would hit traffic jams that extended my trip by at least 20 minutes.
These delays are common to most commuting Americans, who might spend more than an hour behind the wheel on their daily trips to and from work. This experience is so common to Americans because of how incredibly car dependent we have become as the nation has developed.
Ultimately, car dependence comes at a high cost, both financially and socially. We need alternatives.
Just looking at cash outlay, cars place an astronomical financial burden on Americans. The annual cost of owning and operating a personal vehicle varies from $6,000 to $11,000, and that doesn’t include indirect costs such as depreciation, or taxes to maintain our roads and highways.
The median American salary for a full-time worker is about $50,000, meaning Americans are spending on average 12% to 22% of their salary on car costs. For impoverished citizens, these percentages are higher: More than half of their earnings could go to purchasing and maintaining a personal vehicle.
Despite these high costs, our cars sit idle about 95% of the time. We’re essentially shoveling our earnings into a machine that’s parked in a garage most of the time, and stuck in traffic for much of the rest of its life.
Another cost of our car dependence is our time. One study estimated that Americans spend 54 hours a year in traffic; some expect this to balloon to 62 hours by 2025. That is 62 hours we could spend socializing with family and friends, or 62 hours we could be exercising, learning and developing personally. The loss of these hours presents a huge societal cost.
The same study estimates that our time lost in traffic costs us collectively $200 billion a year.
Beyond these personal costs, our car dependence is hurting our fight against climate change. Transportation accounts for nearly 30% of global carbon emissions. The typical vehicle emits 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.
The United Nations projects that if we are to stay under the 1.5-degree Celsius rise that could trigger climate disaster, everyone’s personal carbon emission needs to be less than 2.1 tons per year. Using a car produces more than double that limit.
Meanwhile, personal vehicles also have played a large role in racial and class separation and inequality. As vehicles became popular, U.S. cities grew outward through urban sprawl. Wealthier families who could afford cars fled cities, leaving poorer communities isolated. As a result of this migration, today we are more segregated and interact mostly with those of our own socioeconomic status.
Fortunately, alternatives can help us reduce our use of personal vehicles, including public transit and new development patterns that slow sprawl and promote walkability.
Increased use of public transit would directly combat some of the negative impacts of car use. Most obviously, it would reduce the number of vehicles on the road, helping to relieve traffic and its negative consequences.
More significantly, public transit can reduce emissions. Conventional trains emit …….